Understanding: Principles for Teaching Understanding
Source: Understanding Understanding by Charles M. Reigeluth. Used by Permission.
What are the Obstacles to Conceptual Understanding?[edit | edit source]
It is helpful to think in terms of obstacles to initial acquisition of conceptual understanding and obstacles to retention of that understanding. Understanding is quite the opposite of memorization in that acquisition is what is difficult; retention is relatively easy. Since acquisition is mainly a matter of relating the new knowledge to appropriate prior knowledge, there are three major obstacles. First, the appropriate prior knowledge must indeed have been acquired already. Second, the appropriate prior knowledge must be "activated" that is, it must be brought to mind. And third, the proper relationship between the new knowledge and the prior knowledge must be learned. The more links which are created with relevant prior knowledge, the greater the depth and/or breadth of understanding.
Once conceptual understanding has occurred, retrieval problems are relatively rare. However, if some piece of meaningful knowledge is not used for a long time, it can undergo what David Ausubel calls "obliterative subsumption". To the extent that conceptual knowledge is subsumed under a broader, more inclusive representation of it, lack of use can result in the more detailed refinement being merged back into the subsumer from which it sprang, becoming indistinguishable from it. The more similar it is to its subsumer, the more quickly it is learned, but the more quickly it can also be forgotten.
How can you tell if someone understands? It is a lot more difficult to measure (or test for) understanding than to measure rote memorization. This is because understanding cannot be directly observed. It can only be inferred from various observable behaviors. There are observable behaviors for each of the kinds of relationships. They include contextualizing, comparing and contrasting, analyzing, instantiating, analogizing. and so forth. For causal understanding, they include such things as explanation (making an inference), prediction (describing an implication), and solution (solving a problem), which were described in Module 7 Principle Using.
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